Why People Become Narcissists, Gaslighters and Cult Members

The toxic joys of absolute self-soothing prejudice.

Posted Jul 23, 2018

You’re at a party and you’re introduced to someone whose looks, status, charisma or accomplishments feel a little threatening. Without even noticing, your mind seeks something wrong with them, something that gives you back your competitive edge.

We’ve all done that. If you think you haven’t, that you’re an exception to this generalization, you might not have noticed yourself doing it. You might think that you know better, perhaps because you embrace such popular platitudes as everyone is good, equal or different, or that competition is bad, that we all just need to appreciate everyone, or that you should be your own person.

Still, you’ve probably felt competitive in ways that your heart didn’t escape through such platitudes. Most, if not all of us restore peace of mind at least occasionally through casual, unconscious discounting of individuals who we find threatening.

We can discount one individual at a time but it’s more efficient to do it in bulk, discounting whole swaths of people: “I don’t have to worry about those folks because they’re all X,” whatever the X. It’s what you could call self-soothing prejudice – prejudice that sustains peace of mind.

Prejudice has its place, not just for self-soothing. We bulk-demote criminals and psychopaths, as well we should. A prejudice against psychopaths might save your life. Sure, it’s difficult to distinguish justified from self-soothing prejudices. Still, it’s best to assume self-soothing prejudices are present in all of us, bulk discounting merely for peace of mind.

Self-soothing prejudice is natural. Everyone does it, but at the extreme it becomes dangerous. Self-soothing prejudice tends to corrupt. Absolute self-soothing prejudice corrupts absolutely. It’s worth getting clear on what absolute self-soothing prejudice is.

Life is stressful no matter how lucky you are. It’s a bit like trying to pull ourselves up a cliffside by slippery thin vines. Each vine is a possible way up or a treacherous fall. There are many vines to choose from – all the different paths we can take in order to climb. Each vine can also break or slide out of our grasp. We hope we’ve picked good ones for self-elevation, but we don’t know…

…and when we see others getting ahead of us by sturdy vines we can feel a wave of anxious jealousy. That’s when we reach for self-soothing prejudice: “My vines are better.”

Keep bulking up on the efficient ways to discount threatening people and soon you’re engaged in absolute self-soothing prejudice. Think of it like having a deck of trump cards that you carry everywhere. Anytime you feel threatened by someone’s successes, just pull out a trump card. Any will do.

A trump card is a card that beats all other cards. A deck of them enables you to bulk-discount everyone who disagrees with you. Never again do you need to experience a threat. You’ve got a trumping answer to every challenge.

It’s toxic to those around you but that never bothers you. They’ll call you a narcissist, a psychopath, or a gaslighter. That’s a threat, so you just pull out another trump card.

Where can you get a deck of trump cards? Many people get them from cults. All cults issue decks to their supporters. That’s a cult’s appeal. It’s why people are willing to be brainwashed.

They think they’re joining the cult because they’ve found truth. They think the cult’s lifestyle and prejudices are justified. They never notice that the trump cards in their hands are the same trump cards played by all other cults, even the cults that they hate most. 

Right wing, left wing, religious, spiritual, secular cults? Such distinctions are just different brandings for the same trump card cult product. The appeal is the same no matter what "truths" the cult claims to possess.

A deck of trump cards frees cult supporters to play know-it-all, pretending to be omniscient, infallible but not just that. They also pretend to be all-virtuous and unassailable because they can always trump their way to the moral high ground, higher than anyone who challenges them. When they go low and you go high in response, they just pull out a trump card that enables them to pretend to go higher.

And omnipotent, since armed with the deck, anyone can feel invincible – omnipotent. That’s why they allow themselves to go low. Like the Old Testament God, deck-holders allow themselves to do awful, lowly things to anyone because they’re the highest in virtue.​

​​​​​​Arming oneself with a deck of trump cards is the way to play god – omniscient, omnipotent, and all-virtuous. It’s absolute face-saving, self-soothing prejudice – a prejudice against anyone who gets in one’s way. Having the deck affords people a fantasy break from all that strenuous, anxious climbing up the cliffside of life on slippery, breakable vines.

And it’s addictive. People who pretend they can do no wrong do lots of wrong without admitting it. For every mistake they make there’s another trump card. Trump cards enable people to deny all feedback from reality. They start slipping down the cliffside but they don’t notice. Playing their trump cards, they think they’re climbing.

Trump cards afford people a way to escape all rationality by way of rationalization. Rationalizing is aping the sound of thoughtfulness to provide a blanket of justification for any unthinking impulse. It's mouthing whatever words reassure you, thereby keeping self-doubt at bay

Rationalizing comes more naturally than rational thoughtfulness. It's exactly what you'd get if you crossed words with impulses. You’d get words that justify impulses. We are a self-rationalizing species and at a self-soothing extreme, we rely on the same generic deck of trump cards a handful of ways to swat blindly to bat away all self-doubt.

Absolute rationalizing corrupts absolutely and happens often because rationalizing is addictive. Rationalizing frees us from doubt about whether we're doing something we'll regret. We do it, regret it, and rationalize further to avoid the regret, thereby digging our heels ever-deeper into error until our self-gullibility is infinite and our introspective BS detector is fully dismantled.

Trump cards are generic. Pick a card, any card, and chances are it will restore self-soothing in the face of any challenge. It’s the power of a deck of trump cards that leads to runaway, addictive rationalization. Every failure in the real world can be wiped away with a trump card. Every failure can be interpreted as a further indication that you can do no wrong.

Absolute self-soothing prejudice is the biggest bulk prejudice we can get. It discounts everyone but you. No wonder then that trump card cults pop up around any belief system and lifestyle.

How can you tell whether someone is relying on a trump card deck? A simple first answer is that they have an answer for every challenge, one that keeps them feeling infallible, invincible and unassailable. Like God.

We talk lots about narcissists, psychopaths, and gaslighters without noticing that to go around applying those clinical diagnoses to anyone who gets in our way is itself a trump card move. It would be good, especially in times like these, to pay attention to that whole deck of trump cards and why anyone would want one.